Make America Care Again

The following is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon. The texts were Isaiah 43:1-3a and Mark 4:35-41. You can read the sermon or watch the video below.

My goodness it has been quite a week. I think there’s one phrase from last week that sums up the bizarreness that it was. That phrase is – “I really don’t care. Do U?”

Those were the words written on the back of Melania Trump’s jacket on Thursday as she traveled to the Texas border to visit immigrant children. As you all know, the children were traumatically separated from their parents as their families fled war-torn areas of Central America looking for safety and a better life in the United States.

After all, this is the land of opportunity. The land of freedom and justice for all.

Rarely has a message been more obviously delivered than “I really don’t care. Do U?” on the back of the First Lady’s jacket. Her staff claimed that it was just a jacket and the words didn’t mean anything. But, c’mon. It had a clear meaning. Melania clearly doesn’t care.

But one thing is not clear – and that’s the target of her indifference. Does the First Lady not care about the children being separated from their parents at the border? Earlier in the week she stated that she did care and she encouraged her husband to sign an executive order reversing his policy. And she cared enough to go to the border and listen to the pain of the children as they cried and she heard their stories.

The president had his own interpretation of his wife’s jacket. He took to Twitter to talk for his wife and tell us she wore it to attack the fake news media, which she just doesn’t care about anymore.

But some liberals suggested Melania wore the jacket in response to her husband. They think that the relationship between Melania and the President is so fraught that she wore it to tell her husband that she doesn’t care about their relationship anymore.

And so we are just left with the words, “I really don’t care. Do U?”

I don’t know if the First Lady meant her jacket in this way, but her question is the question that we as individuals and as a nation have to face. Do you really care? Do you care about the immigrant and refugee children being torn from their parents? Or are these mothers, fathers, and children subhuman? Are they actually evil members of a violent Central American gang called MS-13?

And a similar question – Do you care about Muslim refugees coming from Syria to escape the horrors of war? Or are Syrian mothers, fathers, and children really Islamic terrorists?

Or some others might ask, Do you care about immigration laws? Do you care that immigration laws are there to keep order and safety?

Do you really care? Does God care? Does anyone care?

We are in the midst of a cultural crisis in the United States. And that crisis is the question that Melania asked. Do you really care?

I think Melania’s jacket is proof that instead of making America great again, we need to make America care again.

Because there’s a storm brewing in our culture. It’s the storm of hatred. It’s the storm of racism. It’s the storm of anger. It’s the storm of white supremacy. It’s the storm of the politics of fearmongering. It’s the storm that is drowning us in a sense of despair as the news tells negative story after negative story and it’s making many of us feel numb, like we just don’t care anymore.

I admit to you that I am prone to this kind of despair and hopelessness. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. You may have heard of the story that went viral this last week about an Oregon DMV employee who wrote on her Facebook page that the best way to solve our immigration problem is to shoot the immigrants at the border. Such hatred in any individual leads me to despair. But how did many of my fellow liberal-minded people respond? Many have stated that they wished someone would just kill her.

This is the storm in the United States. We have political leaders whose primary way of solving real or perceived problems involves some form of verbal or physical violence and exclusion of others. And the primary way that many respond in return is with our own forms of verbal or physical violence and exclusion.

Amid this cultural storm of reciprocal hatred and violence, we need to find a third way. This third way is based on saying “Yes” to Melania’s question. It’s based on making America care again. It’s based on God’s universal love and justice that reaches out to all people, but especially those on the margins. It’s this universal love and justice that will calm the storm.

Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was in Judea teaching and preaching the good news. He was healing people and bringing them into the realm of God’s radical love. That’s because Jesus cared about all people, but especially those who were suffering.

And as today’s reading tells us, one day Jesus decided to cross the sea from Judea to the land of the Gerasenes. This matters because Judea was the land of the Jews and the land of the Garasenes was part of the land of the Gentiles. Many first century Jews and Gentiles had a particular mindset about each other. That mindset was “us and them.” There were Gentiles and there were Jews. Us and them. And often this us and them mentality came with a sense of hostility. When Jesus crossed the sea he was crossing the border of hostility between us and them. That’s because for Jesus, there is no “us and them.” There’s only us.

Jesus sailed across the border to show that God loves and cares for all people, including those we have labeled as less than human.

Jesus was exhausted from a day of teaching and preaching and healing, so he took a nap on the boat. While sleeping, a massive storm threatened his ship. His disciples woke Jesus up and said, “We are drowning! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Once again we are faced with Melania’s jacket. Do you really care? Did Jesus care about the lives of his disciples? Does Jesus care about the lives of children being separated at the border from their parents? Or is Jesus asleep at the border? And is Jeff Sessions right and Romans 13 really does say that God ordained the American Government to do whatever the hell it wants and we all just need to obey?

Jesus got up and he calmed the storm. Because of course Jesus cared about his disciples in the boat. Of course Jesus cares about immigrant families. And as much as I loathe their policies and think their interpretation of the Bible is an abomination, I know that God’s love is universal, and so of course God loves and cares about Donald Trump and the members of his administration.

I constantly have to remind myself of this truth as I’m working for justice. When we follow Jesus, we move away from an us against them mentality. Jesus leads us to cross over the borders of hate and hostility so that we love and care for all people, including those we call our enemies. So, I can work for or against any political policy, but I need to remind myself that Donald Trump and his administration are not the enemy.

Hatred is the enemy.

Violence is the enemy.

Exclusion is the enemy.

Building walls is the enemy.

Indifference is the enemy.

And God is not indifferent. God cares. As our passage from the prophet Isaiah tells us, even when we walk through the waters, fires, and storms of life, we are not alone. God walks with us. God is present in the pain, in the suffering, and in the trauma. The Incarnation of Jesus says that God experienced that pain, suffering, and trauma in the person of Jesus as he went to the cross. And Jesus says that if you want to know where he is in this world, look to the poor, the weak, the marginalized. Look to the immigrant and the refugee because that’s where Jesus is. Jesus is at the border in those children and in those parents.

Jesus is held hostage in a cage. Jesus is detained in an old abandoned Wal-Mart. Jesus is being separated from his parents. And many Christians just sit back because they’d rather be more loyal to their government than to their God.

The resurrected Jesus once appeared to a man named Saul. Saul was on a road to a city called Damascus where he was going to persecute the early Christians. The resurrected Jesus came to Saul and said, “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting me?”

Saul worked in tandem with the government. The government used the politics of fear to label the young Christian movement as a threat to their way of life. Like Jeff Sessions, Saul could have said to the resurrected Jesus, “Well, the government tells me I should do this, and God ordained the government, so I’m going to kill those Christians.” But instead, Saul’s heart was transformed. You see, Saul met God in the risen Christ. He discovered that when he was persecuting other people, he was also persecuting the resurrected Jesus. Why? Because with the eyes of faith you begin to see that Jesus is present in those who are being oppressed.

Mothers and fathers and children are at the border. And Jesus is at the border with them. They have traveled away from the violent storms in their homeland to the US, only to find another storm waiting for them. But God cares about them. And we care about them, too.

And here’s where I will end – a large percentage of Americans care about them. In the face of horrible immigration policies that separate families, people have risen up and made their voices heard. Almost everyone from fundamentalists like Franklin Graham to reformers like Pope Francis united against this cruel policy to proclaim that immigrant families belong together. Republican and Democratic governors rebelled against the policy. And American Airlines, Delta, United, and Frontier Airlines all stated that they cared about families. They are refusing to allow the federal government to use their planes to transport children who have been separated from their parents.

And this morning I want you to hear a word of hope. I want you to hear that love wins. That caring wins. Oh, we have some work to do. We each have a part to play in calming of the storm of hatred and violence and lack of caring that infects our nation. But there’s hope because the voices that demand to keep families together are winning.

But I want us to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” And that man named Saul that I told you about earlier who tried to persecute Christians? After his conversion he became the apostle Paul and he wrote in Romans chapter 12, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

My friends, there is a lot of evil in the world. But let us not be overcome by it. In our struggle for justice, let us not imitate the evil and hateful methods that we see all around us. Instead, let us overcome evil with good. Let us trust that love wins. And let us care all the more. Amen.

Image: Screenshot from YouTube.

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